We do not share a common global language based on words. If we are to communicate to people from other countries we must learn their language. Attempts to develop a global language, such as Esperanto, have been made but so far failed to gain universal popularity. There is perhaps more hope in the concept that we could share a global language based on images. Translated into Esperanto: tie estas eble pli esperi en la koncepto tio ni poto akcio a mondo lingvo komponis de images.
From hieroglyphics to iPhone status symbols
The portrayal of information through a visual language of signs and symbols is an ancient art. Egyptian hieroglyphics, the textiles of Navaho Indians, the branding of animals and the cave paintings of Lascoux all convey information through pictures. Today we have build upon the conventions of pictorial representation.
The supremacy of image
Symbols, icons, signs, image-based brands, emoticons, the iconography of the web and visual instructions are now used to convey information. As we learn this new code we begin to understand it as a convention. The Canadian designer David Berman has suggested that this wordless language is a new version of Esperanto – a truly international language. The supremacy of the word is under question.
We ‘read’ images everywhere: fax machines; email; browsers; computer icons; photocopiers; mobile phones; wash-care symbols; recycling symbols; electric circuit diagrams; packaging graphics; this way up arrows; safety pictograms; warning signs; maps; signage; cycle lanes; road signs; the radioactivity trefoil symbol; hazardous chemical symbols; on car panels; machine interfaces; cookers; and the Olympic symbol representing unity between the five continents.
We live our lives at ever increasing speed. Symbols and icons represent compact information free of words and potentially quicker to absorb. Information graphics, data displays, statistical maps, weather forecasts and other forms of visual shorthand are replacing paragraphs of text. Attention span and inclination to read vast quantities of text are on the decline. An analysis of the front pages of newspapers over the last century will indicate only too well the move from the textual to the visual.
The global power of image
Many global organisations realise that in order to reach their audience they must use images and not words. Low levels of literacy have been proven to affect health. Symbolic representations of concepts rather than words are more effective in communicating vital messages regarding AIDS, contraception and childcare. Petrol companies have been gradually increasing the visual impact of their symbols whilst reducing the accompanying type. Shape and colour have more impact on memory than words. Nike and Apple are companies that enjoy immediate recognition through their symbol alone.
The Mines Awareness Group (MAG)
Chrissy Levett left the Royal College of Art disillusioned with the graphics star system prevalent in London. The Mines Awareness Group (MAG) aims to clear mines and unexploded bombs to reduce the incidents of injury and death. MAG gathered data, visited hospitals and talked to mine victims to ascertain enough information to begin mapping out the minefields. Looking for something meaningful to do with her life, Levett applied to MAG and underwent training to identify different types of mines, learn safe practice and to recognise the rudimentary signs that had been made to mark out danger spots. Suddenly Levett realised an application for her design training and began to construct an icon-based language to communicate the dos and don’ts of living with land mines. Understanding differences in perception and visual language between Western and Eastern cultures was critical to the success of the project.
Today Schipol Airport is a model of excellence that has started a chain reaction of clear airport signage, whose influence can be seen at airports such as Atlanta’s Hartsfield, Denver’s, and Hong Kong’s airports. The initial designs, however, did run into some trouble. The vogue for lowercase typography resulted in reduced word recognition. Pictograms were discarded as superfluous communication ‘noise’ despite earlier models such as the Michelin Guide of 1900 demonstrating that icons were useful in producing compact information. Learning these lessons initial capital letters were re-instated at Schipol Airport and pictograms were introduced to reinforce the Dutch/English bilingual text.
Pictograms became associated with product information and began to appear on packaging and products for companies such as Siemens, Philips and Toyota. Manufacturers began to wise up to the economic advantages of a pictographic system and communicating a message once to an international audience. Lengthy descriptions on products such as a digital camera are not possible. It is necessary to learn the language of icons in order to operate many of today’s products.
NASA communicates with alien life
NASA has launched space probes containing the notion of human existence acted out by a series of special pictograms. This makes the assumption that alien life would perceive through visual senses and would comprehend human concepts.
Ravi Poovaiah’s hospital system
India is a country of 14 languages and 1600 dialects. They had no universal pictographic signage system for their hospitals. This led to chaos and people often standing in wrong queues in wrong parts of the building. Professor Ravi Poovaiah of the Indian Institute of Technology’s Industrial Design Centre devised a system of 21 symbols representing various departments using the basic Isotype model as a starting point. Poovaiah’s system also included variations reflecting cultural context such as dress codes and traditional divisions between sexes, religions and castes.
The US army have a Psychological Operations Division. During the first Iraq conflict of 1991 the US army leafleted Iraqi conscripts advocating surrender over their inevitable demise. This message was conveyed through pictorial means. This was again repeated in the Afghanistan conflict of 2001. The US forces attempted to create a division between the Afghan population and the ruling Taleban. The 70% illiteracy rate required a visual propaganda campaign. The leaflets included images of Taleban leaders with a target sight superimposed over their heads. Food packages also contained visual propaganda sewn into the opening instructions.
Kwikpoint International Translator
Alan Stillman is a US computer systems analyst who developed a double-sided picture card with 600 illustrations designed to aid inter-cultural communication for mono-linguists. The user points at the picture on the card to gain a basic level of communication.
Pippo Lionni and the facts of life
Pippo Lionni has liberated the figures that have been imprisoned on toilet signs, airport signage and road signs. They now form the characters in a new play scripted by Lionni, ‘The Facts of Life’. Here they enact the human experience from birth to death.
Marie and Otto Neurath’s Isotype
The Austrian economist, Otto Neurath working at the Vienna Social and Economic Museum introduced the Isotype method in 1936 with his wife Marie. They had developed a visual dictionary of two thousand symbols and an accompanying grammar to articulate information with immediacy. The intention of such a system was to convey social and economic information through devices such as silhouetted men and women. Otto Neurath has said of their system that ‘the Isotype method may very well become one of the factors that will help to bring about a civilization where all people share a common culture and where the gulf between educated and uneducated will be bridged’. This is perhaps too much to ask of a pictographic system but information designers owe a debt of gratitude to the pioneering work of Marie and Otto Neurath. The Isotype method provides a source of inspiration that grows in significance with the growth of iconographic communication.